How to have better arguments

| March 15, 2024

Have you ever been pulled into a debate online only for it to devolve into a heated thread of personal attacks?

Or maybe you’ve walked away from an argument that wasn’t your best work – perhaps you couldn’t get your view across clearly, or you did, but aren’t proud of how you went about it.

If so, you’re not alone. According to Associate Professor Michaelis Michael, a philosopher who teaches logic and reasoning at UNSW’s School of Humanities & Languages, a lot of arguments we make are actually bad arguments on the surface.

“Quite often, you can be arguing badly and not realising that you’re arguing badly,” says A/Prof. Michael.

“We need to respect the truth more – that means respecting how things are, regardless of whether we know how things are – and understand that we’re not perfect and allow ourselves to be corrected.”

Improving the way we argue is something that we can all do – and for good reason. Taking steps to fine-tune our argument style can help clarify our thoughts, increase positive debate, and help us reach the truth more often.

But it can be a difficult process.

“It takes a certain amount of self-confidence to think, ‘Yeah, I might be wrong’ and ‘Why do I think that?’ in a public setting,” says A/Prof. Michael.

“You need to separate how you come off in an argument from your self worth.”

A/Prof. Michael remembers the moment he learnt what a good argument could be.

He was speaking with a philosophy professor at graduate school and raised some objections to his professor’s views.

But instead of the professor becoming defensive – as A/Prof. Michael was expecting – he surprised him with a gracious response.

“His response to me was, ‘Yeah, I think you’re right. And you know, that objection would be even better if you put it like this’,” says A/Prof. Michael.

“He was someone interested in getting at the truth, not winning the debate – even if it meant objecting to the views that had made him famous. That was really eye-opening to me, because I realised how much of my motivation had been about showing how smart I was.

“It also made me see what it was like to engage with someone who was interested in getting at the truth, as opposed to someone who’s interested in defending a position.”

This experience was transformative for A/Prof. Michael. And by applying a little bit of philosophy to our own arguing styles, we can all start benefiting from more enjoyable and rewarding arguments.

“Philosophy is like the thinking version of Slow Food,” says A/Prof. Michael. “It’s slow, and it’s kind of boring. And sometimes it feels like we’re making very small progress.

“But it’s not the answers that matter so much as the process of being open to criticism, open to question.”

What is an argument?

In its simplest form, an argument is a bunch of sentences that are reasons for another sentence (aka, the conclusion).

The reasons are the premises, and the thing they reason for, the conclusion.

A/Prof. Michael likens this to science.

“If you think about science, what we’re quite often trying to do is look for an explanation for the phenomenon that we’re dealing with,” he says.

“We know that there are alternative explanations that we think are even less likely, but we’re trying to provide support for our conclusion.”

But constructing an argument can be more challenging than it seems, with poorly thought-out arguments running the risk of driving your point into the ground.

“The reason so many of our arguments are often bad arguments is because most of what we do in arguments is allusive,” says A/Prof. Michael. “We allude to an argument, and we expect that it can be filled in. We show the road without showing every step.

“For example, take the argument ‘Socrates is a man, so Socrates is mortal’. That’s actually a fallacy because the conclusion doesn’t follow the premise. But you assume that the person you’re speaking with will be able to fill in the premise to make it into a good argument – in this case, it would be something like all humans are mortal.

“Whether your argument is a good argument or a bad argument depends on whether it can be filled in.”

Bad faith arguments

While we can often slip into bad arguments without realising, bad faith arguments – that is, inauthentic arguments that the arguer doesn’t necessarily believe themselves – are a different beast altogether.

“When you’re engaging in a conversation or reasoning with someone, it’s a collective effort,” says A/Prof. Michael.

“It depends on good faith that the things that you’re saying are both relevant and can be filled in to make it into a good argument. But that’s not always the case.

“Bad players can exploit that good faith. For example, politicians or administrators can use a bad faith argument to justify the causes of action that they want to follow, or to manipulate people’s opinion of alternatives, whether it be an alternative candidate or alternative strategies.”

Bad faith arguments can be found everywhere, be it in the media, at the family dinner table, or – quite commonly – buried in the comment sections on social media.

“On Facebook people seem to see success as triggering the other person,” says A/Prof. Michael. “Not showing them that perhaps there’s a gap in your understanding, but rather making them angry, and getting them to react emotionally.

“That seems completely antithetical to that collective effort of trying to get to the truth.”

While it can be hard to tell if the person you’re speaking with is arguing in bad faith, there are two key groups of people that tend to do this often: liars and bullshitters.

Worse than lies

Bullshitting and lying might seem like two sides of the same coin, but there’s a key difference between the two – and one is a lot more dangerous than the other, says A/Prof. Michael.

“The liar cares enough about truth to try and keep it from you, whereas the bullshitter doesn’t actually care whether what they say is true or false,” says A/Prof. Michael. “What they care about is having a certain effect on you. And they will say whatever it takes to get that effect.

“Bullshitters are more of a threat to the discipline of truth than a liar is, because a liar at least cares enough to keep the truth from you. But a bullshitter just doesn’t care what’s true and what’s false.”

But unfortunately, there’s no simple way we can tell if we’re speaking to a liar or a bullshitter.

“There’s no truth-o-meter we can turn on,” says A/Prof. Michael. “And the thing about bullshitters and liars who are successful, is that they’re successful in representing themselves as acting in good faith.

“We have to use our critical ability to try and figure out what sources are more dependable.”

The argument for better arguments

There are two key reasons why we should all aim to have better arguments, says A/Prof. Michael.

One’s selfish, and the other, social.

“The selfish reason is that it’s only by thinking through your own views that you can understand what you think and why you think it for yourself,” he says.

“And that’s not a trivial thing. Understanding yourself is hard to do. And learning to think for yourself is part of what it is to be truly human.”

On a more social level, learning to argue better means we can work together towards reaching a common understanding of the truth, says A/Prof. Michael.

“Our disagreements are often based on fundamental agreements that we have to recognise, and then there are disagreements that we learn to tolerate or not,” he says.

“We have to allow for the possibility of real disagreement and try to figure out just where our disagreements are and where they come from. You do that by working out reasons for different positions.

“That’s what arguments and understanding arguments is all about.”

Two friends talking while having drinks in a bar

It’s important to listen to other people because they might have insights and questions that haven’t occurred to us before, says A/Prof. Michael. Photo: Getty Images

A philosopher’s top tips to having better arguments

A/Prof. Michael gives his top three tips on having better arguments.

1. Understand what it means to give an argument

An argument is providing reasons, or premises, for our conclusion. This might initially seem like a simple process, but crafting compelling reasons isn’t something that happens automatically – it takes a lot of thought.

“Really think about what sort of reasons you’re giving the other person,” says A/Prof. Michael.

“Ask yourself, ‘What would count as a good reason for this person for what I want them to believe?’”

2. Clearly signpost your argument

It might seem simple, but signposting your argument – for example, saying words like ‘therefore’ or ‘since’ when connecting your reasons to your conclusion – can improve your argument immensely, says A/Prof. Michael.

“We aren’t very clear about what our argument is lot of the time, either because we haven’t thought it through for ourselves or we’re a bit anxious and insecure about giving our own argument,” he says.

“But signposting exactly what your argument is or how many arguments you have can help enormously, because the structure of your argument becomes clearer.”

Even though signposting is something that we often do intuitively, it can take some work to intentionally include it in our arguments.

“You can do much better by becoming more explicit about signposting,” says A/Prof. Michael. “It’s part of realising you’re dealing with another person who can’t see inside your mind.”

3. Consider why someone might disagree with you

Lastly, A/Prof. Michael stresses the importance of considering – really considering – the reasons why someone might disagree with your argument.

It could be a misunderstanding, or perhaps they disagree with the premise you’re starting from. Whatever the case, it’s important to ask yourself what issues they might take, and how you might respond to that.

“Sometimes, your response will be refining your position,” says A/Prof. Michael. “Maybe you’ve got a more nuanced position that you want to now refine and put forward.

“Or maybe their concerns aren’t actually relevant to what you’re saying because they’re addressing a different argument. By highlighting that, you can clarify what your argument is, and help them understand they can have their concerns, but still accept what you’re saying.”

Whatever the outcome, truly considering why someone might disagree with you means you’re engaging with the other person as an intelligent person.

“It’s really important to listen to other people, because they might be coming from a different course of experience and have insights and questions that haven’t occurred to us,” says A/Prof. Michael.

“Quite often, we make progress in our understanding not by some great theory, but a question that occurs that hasn’t occurred to us before.

“This means that arguing isn’t just a completely adversarial thing. It’s about trying to come together and work towards the truth.”